19th Edition

Plains Indian Sign Language


A language of United States

Alternate Names
Hand Talk, Indian Language of Signs, Indian Sign Language, NAISL, North American Indian Sign Language, PISL, Plains Sign Language, Plains Sign Talk, PST, Sign Talk

Total users in all countries: 75.


Scattered. Great Plains and neighboring regions.

Language Status

8b (Nearly extinct). Formerly used as a lingua franca for inter-tribal contact among at least 40 different language groups by hearing and deaf people. In 1890, a private census reported 100,000 users (McKay-Cody 1996). Wide range of genres including story-telling, prayers, inter-tribal negotiation, and bantering (Davis 2010).


Some variation by ethnic group and region, but dialect differences do not impede communication among different tribes. Lexical similarity between different historical sources on PISL ranges from 80% to 92%. Comparison of these sources with American Sign Language [ase] shows 50% similarity (Davis 2010).


SOV; compounding (head-initial); verb agreement; classifier predicates.

Language Use

Used by deaf people with family and friends as a primary sign language, more elaborate than its use as a lingua franca (an “alternative sign language”) (McKay-Cody 1996). Older adults and elderly, ages 50 and above. Some younger people are learning PISL, especially their own tribe’s signs (2015 M. McKay-Cody). Also use American Sign Language [ase].

Language Development
Other Comments

Sign language use by Native Americans is documented in many parts of North America, from the Arctic to Mexico, including the Northeastern, Southeastern, and Southwestern USA, and apparently predates European contact. Some of these varieties are recognized as separate languages, while for others this is not yet determined (and may never be, since some are extinct). The name “North American Indian Sign Language” is used when this broader range of varieties is considered (McKay-Cody 1996, Davis 2010).

Also spoken in:

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